Lynetteholm: Inside plans for Copenhagen’s divisive artificial storm-absorbing peninsula

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Lynetteholm: Inside plans for Copenhagen’s divisive artificial storm-absorbing peninsula

Written by Leah Dolan, CNN

In January 2022, a team of developers, architects and environmental consultants began work on a 50-year project that – if completed – will become one of Denmark’s most ambitious and controversial infrastructure schemes to date: a 271-acre man-made peninsula designed is to protect its capital, Copenhagen, from rising sea levels.

Property developer By & Havn believes the cape-like design, known as Lynetteholm, is essential for protecting the port city, which highlights Copenhagen’s history of dangerous storms and severe flooding. “(Climate) forecasts are not getting any better,” said the firm’s plant manager and harbor master, Hans Vasehus, during a site visit. “We must – if we can – change.”

But the $439 million environmental project has drawn vocal criticism — primarily, and somewhat ironically, from those concerned about the climate.

Those who oppose Lynetteholm worry that building the peninsula is already damaging habitats and polluting surrounding waters, poisoning the city’s harbors and disturbing the delicately balanced salinity of the Baltic Sea.

When Lynetteholm was approved by a parliamentary vote in June 2021, the decision was met with public outrage, protests and even attempted legal action. Protesters from the 16,000-strong “Stop Lynetteholm!” Facebook group arrived outside the Danish parliament wearing placards and sheep costumes. In June 2021, the climate organization Klimabèvègesen submitted a petition to the European Parliament alleging that the Danish government broke EU law by not carrying out an adequate assessment of Lynetteholm’s environmental impact (the European Commission accepted the complaint in September rejected).

At a ceremony celebrating the start of construction in January 2022, Copenhagen Mayor Sophie Hæstorp Andersen, the city’s Transport Minister Benny Engelbrecht and By & Havn CEO Anne Skovbro were surrounded by protesters as they walked Lynetteholm symbolically kicked the first piles of soil. One protester even laid on the ground during the photo call, according to local newspaper Copenhagen Post.

An artificial coastline will overlook the Øresund. Credit: COWI/Architema and Tredje Natur

Rising sea levels

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts 9 to 12 additional inches of global sea level rise by 2050, on top of the 8 to 9 inches it has already risen since the industrial revolution. Research predicts Copenhagen will be one of the regions most affected by rising sea levels – with parts of the city already sitting just a few feet above the sea’s surface.

“Large parts of Copenhagen and the surrounding areas will be flooded,” said Vasehus. “The metro (subway) will be flooded in the worst cases, and they will be out of order for a year. Copenhagen will be hit very hard.”

Although there isn’t much to see yet, blueprints for Lynetteholm outline a bat-shaped peninsula with a small western dam shielding the city’s harbor. An artificial coastline will overlook the Øresund, a water strait leading to the Baltic Sea. Instead of the typical concrete sea wall, landscape architects hope it will be an example of “adaptive design” that can be modified in the future. Just as a naturally occurring beach can buffer and reflect powerful wave energy, designers believe Lynetteholm’s man-made coastline will absorb and dissipate incoming waves. Architects argue that the wide and deliberately jagged coastline will be much easier to strengthen and even raise, if sea levels exceed forecasts, than to extend a wall higher.

“Instead of going vertically tall, we’re going wide,” says Ole Schrøder, a partner at Tredje Natur, one of the architectural firms involved in the project.

“If it was a vertical wall, it would become fragile if the sea levels rose on top with waves,” he added. “But here we can collect the waves better with a beach landscape that absorbs them with a more natural approach.”

Landscape architects, meanwhile, hope that the project’s coastline – which they envision as a so-called “process landscape”, designed to be developed over time – will promote biodiversity over the next 10 to 30 years through its mix of countryside, forestry and beaches.

“The idea was to somehow respect the original type of nature that was here before we came,” said Schrøder.

35,000 new homes are scheduled to be built on Lynetteholm’s countryside, and while the IPCC advises against new developments in “exposed coastal locations”, it recommends building projects that prioritize the protection of ecosystems. “We create habitats, whether natural or artificial, to create environments for fish, shellfish, seagrass,” Schrøder said. “It’s not a design, it’s designing a process that will evolve over time.”

35,000 houses are scheduled to be built on Lynetteholm's plains.

35,000 houses are scheduled to be built on Lynetteholm’s plains. Credit: COWI/Architema and Tredje Natur

The problems

Criticism of the project is multifaceted, with those opposed to Lynetteholm highlighting fears that the peninsula will become an example of maladaptation (a term used to describe architecture built to address climate change, but itself causing significant environmental damage).

Its positioning has already drawn criticism over potential threats to the delicate salt balance of the surrounding waters, which could kill local organisms and wreck habitats. By & Havn was also forced to change building plans after protesters argued that dumping the excavated soil in the city’s harbors could pollute the water and harm wildlife.

“We can’t tell you exactly what’s toxic in the sludge,” protester Kathrime Hammich said while on a group video call with the Stop Lynetteholm! campaign. “But we know that part of the project will be built in a place where in the past there were shipyards, and they have everything from paint to (old ship) parts (buried) in the harbor.” While Vasehus insists that removed soil will be “uncontaminated,” he acknowledged that his firm’s original proposal for disposing of soil was “out of fashion.”

The liquid budget of the project is another issue for critics. The initial phase of construction was said to cost 300 million Danish kroner (about $43 million), but By & Havn admits the budget will likely reach more than 10 times that amount. The entire project’s budget now stands at 70 billion DK ($9.9 billion).

The young people who oppose the project “feel their agency is being taken away,” said Nicholas Woollhead, another member of the protest group. “The plans that are made tie them to a budget for the next 70 or 100 years,” he added.

“We decided to live in Copenhagen (because it’s a nice city to live in,” added fellow protester Marcello Morns. “And somehow it’s going to be a construction project now. It’s going to be Copenhagen for the rest make my life noisy and dirty.”

New dawn of climate design

Lynetteholm is not the only project of its kind on Copenhagen’s horizon. In fact, an entire man-made archipelago is going to be built in the harbor in the coming years. Also developed with rising sea levels and urban flooding in mind, the project was designed by MAST, an architecture firm currently formulating a prototype of floating pavilion platforms that they hope could one day be used to build homes on water.

The first island, called CPH-Ø1, was completed in 2018.

A visualization of MAST's upcoming "parkipelago" of floating islands in Copenhagen.

A visualization of MAST’s upcoming “parkipelago” of floating islands in Copenhagen. Credit: Airflix/MIR

This is more evidence of a new wave of climate-focused architecture starting to emerge. More and more firms are opting for reused materials to mitigate the impact of the environmental emergency, or testing evolving construction techniques – such as MAST – to better adapt to different conditions. Landscape architects, like those behind Lynetteholm, are increasingly meeting the fluid reality of climate change with adaptive design.

While there appears to be no going back now (Lynetteholm’s first phase of construction is already on schedule to be completed by early 2023), one of the project’s biggest challenges will be convincing the public. In November, developers By & Havn announced that they would be holding citizen meetings with 66 members of the public from Copenhagen and the surrounding area in an effort to engage with growing criticism.

“I still think the parliament and the municipality are generally behind us,” said Vasehus. “There’s an audience in Denmark that’s against it, sure, there’s a lot of individuals against us, they might have their own ideas. Some of the people who live here don’t think it’s an attraction, and I can understand that .”

Top image: Renderings of Lynetteholm courtesy of COWI.

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